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Safe as Houses

I don’t know about you but in the same week that the United States launched it cyber-defense plan, I’m receiving junk email from an operation calling itself the “AMERICAN BIO-THREAT

INFO LINE”, is, for the price of a premium rate telephone call, offering “Get the Facts!!! Know the Causes, Symptoms & Treatments of: Anthrax, Cholera, Smallpox, Ebola, Typhoid Fever, Salmonella Botulism and Much More!!!”

It comes as no surprise that the Americans don’t realize that we have a National Health Service and that most, if not all of the above diseases and indeed, many more, can be found, completely free of charge, in any London casualty unit.. However, this does illustrate that regardless of doom-laden warnings of the collapse of the US national infrastructure, as a consequence of a cyber-attack, people, over there at least, are far more worried about decidedly low-tech threats

At least the Americans have a cyber-defense plan. We have one of sorts, I know, because I have been involved in a number of meeting on the subject and have met Howard Schmidt, several times, the Vice Chairman of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board and one of the architects of the US domestic strategy. But this is England and as you would expect, our own cyber-defense measures reflect the Dunkirk spirit and involve the cooperation of a number of different agencies. How this works in practice isn’t immediately obvious and I recall that Howard and Robert Miller, the Deputy Director of the US Department of Commerce, were attempting to grasp the intracacies when I met them shortly after 911.

The real problem for government, ours or theirs, is that the infrastructure that runs the technology is owned by private enterprise, so anything beyond encouragement would be counter-productive. As a consequence, the US government is asking business to make cyber-security an integrated part of any commercial operation in a manner that almost mandates the existence of a security policy, something that a good 60% of companies in the UK still don’t have.

But once the applause has died down and the politicians have returned to their constituencies feeling a little safer from the imagined threat of suicide hackers, the truth sinks in. Nothing has really changed and responsibilities are as vague and as voluntary as they ever were.

Back on this side of the pond, we aren’t so obsessed with the threat of hackers wreaking havoc on our critical infrastructure, as after all, we have RailTrack, the Health Service and The London Underground to worry about first. The reality is that you can have a cyber-defense plan, which involves the hardening of critical systems in the public sector but outside of this, any initiative can’t really be much better than the public-service broadcasts made in the sixties against the threat of nuclear weapons. “Wrap yourself in brown paper and hide under the kitchen table”.

Now the Americans have set an example of kinds, the DTI should at least start encouraging businesses in our brave new Broadband Britain to start taking the issue of cyber-security more seriously than their own figures suggest they are. While I don’t think we need our own homeland security Czar it’s time for government to start making the right noises about securing the Knowledge Economy.

Meanwhile, if you think you might have anthrax, you’ll have to wait ten days for a doctor’s appointment like everyone else in SW19.


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